The cult of Lululemon is dying

Lululemon modelLululemon on FacebookLululemon’s same-store sales growth is sluggish.

Lululemon stores are losing their most loyal fans.

The company experienced several years of double-digit same-store sales growth by targeting yoga lovers with its stretchy pants and fashionable workout tops.

The stores’ yoga classes and other community-building activities helped Lululemon build a fiercely loyal, cult-like following.

But same-store sales are now in a slump. That metric declined 1% in the company’s first quarter, continuing the 1% decline during its last fiscal year.

Lululemon’s ecommerce business is still thriving — it was up 31% in the most recent quarter — but it accounts for just 20% of total sales.

So what happened?

The company’s troubles began in 2013 when it recalled its Luon pants for being see-through.

“What made the company such a force to be reckoned with, up until mid 2013, in our view, was the fact that Lululemon offered one of the best, if not the best, combination of product and consumer/community engagement in all of retail,” Sterne Agee analysts wrote in a note last fall.

Now, Lululemon’s biggest threat is its growing field of competitors.

There has been a “rapid rise in competition from both direct and more indirect competitors,” Stephen Ward, commercial director of the retail consulting firm Conlumino, wrote in a recent note. “Indirect” threats include companies like Gap, which are investing more in activewear.

But “the threat from the rise of specialists is more of an issue,” Ward wrote. “Under Armour, for example, has been actively adding physical space — including a 30,000 square foot Brand House on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago and a new store in the Mall of America.”

Under Armour might not seem like a major threat to Lululemon’s yoga empire with its more “masculine” aesthetic, but its womenswear business is growing rapidly, Ward noted.

“Although we would argue that Lululemon still has a distinct and well positioned brand, there is no doubt that a more crowded playing field in physical places has made growth much harder to come by,” Ward wrote.

Under ArmourFacebook/Under ArmourUnder Armour’s snagged an endorsement deal with model Gisele B√ľndchen for its women’s line.

Under Armour is hoping to grow its women’s segment, which generated about $US600 million last year, to at least the size of its core men’s business, according to the company’s CEO, Kevin Plank. Under Armour’s total revenue in 2014 was just over $US3 billion.

Nike is also investing aggressively in its women’s business.

The company has started opening women’s-only stores and expects its women’s business to grow faster than its men’s business, from $US5 billion at the end of this fiscal year to $US7 billion by 2017, according to Bloomberg.

Lululemon is trying to fend off its competition by expanding its customer base with a foray into menswear and fitness clothes for kids.

The company started opening men’s-only stores last year and the results have been overwhelmingly positive so far.

Same-store sales of its menswear were up 19% in the most recent quarter, the company said on an earnings call Tuesday.

As lululemon’s customer base becomes more broad, it could lose the cult status it once had with 30- and 40-something yoga lovers.

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